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  • Divided Loyalties: Irish American Women Labor Leaders and the Irish Revolution, 1916–23
  • Elizabeth McKillen (bio)

The centennial celebrations of the Easter Rebellion in the spring of 2016 brought refreshing new light to a range of historical issues, including the role of women in the fighting and the significance of Irish American fraternal and nationalist organizations in funding both the Rising and the subsequent Irish War for Independence.1 Yet unsurprisingly, one theme remained largely neglected: the efforts of Irish rebels and their U.S. supporters to court Irish American labor leaders and to align both the American Federation of Labor and the more radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) behind the Irish Revolution. Although such efforts may seem quixotic in today’s hostile labor environment, in the early twentieth century the U.S. labor movement grew rapidly and inspired ambitious visions of how it might be used to transform both U.S. and global society and politics. Irish Americans played dominant roles in the U.S. labor movement at every level, from the local to the national, and were poised to play an important role in determining its future course. During the era from 1916 to 1923, Irish nationalists sought the support of Irish American labor leaders in efforts that included promoting labor opposition to U.S. intervention in World War I on the side of the British, organizing a U.S. labor boycott of British goods, passing trade-union resolutions supporting the Irish Revolution, gaining a hearing for the cause of Irish independence at the Versailles Peace Conference, and securing diplomatic recognition of the Irish Republic by the U.S. government. [End Page 165] The injection of Irish issues into trade-union politics, in turn, bitterly divided the U.S. labor movement, with some insisting that such issues were a distraction and others arguing that opposing an unjust imperial division of labor was rightfully the concern of all labor movements.

Although a few pioneering studies have now emerged on these topics, much more historical attention is needed.2 Particularly neglected is the subject of how the Irish Revolution divided a generation of talented Irish American women labor activists who played critical roles in gaining a foothold for women within the early twentieth-century U.S. trade-union movement. This article explores the diaspora backgrounds of three prominent Irish American women labor activists of the World War I era—Leonora O’Reilly, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Agnes Nestor—and considers how they responded to the Easter Rebellion and Irish Revolution. Each of these women had parents or grandparents who had immigrated to the United States in the wake of the Great Famine to escape the grinding poverty that gripped their homeland. Yet their families also subsequently found economic opportunities for the Irish in the United States to be quite limited. Economic hardship initially led each of these women toward careers as labor organizers rather than toward involvement in Irish American fraternal or nationalist organizations. Following the Easter Rebellion, however, a diverse array of Irish and Irish American groups, Irish American male trade unionists, and Irish women rebels who traveled to the United States to raise money for and awareness of the War for Independence sought their support. Invoking the vision of Irish socialist rebel leader James Connolly, Irish nationalists insisted that Irish American labor leaders should support the Irish rebels because they were fighting for a “workers’ republic.” British imperialism, moreover, hurt not only Irish but also American workers. On the one [End Page 166] hand, the Anglo-Protestant elite in the United States took cues from the British in discriminating against Irish American workers. On the other hand, the British undermined labor standards throughout the world by perpetuating substandard conditions in its colonies. Finally, Irish nationalists suggested that women labor activists had a particular stake in the struggle because Irish rebel leaders had announced their intent to reverse centuries of allegedly British-inspired gender discrimination and to give full and equal rights to women in the new Irish republic.3

Both Leonora O’Reilly and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn responded positively to the appeals of Irish nationalists and became key figures in transnational networks that supported the...


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